Walter Wangerin creatively tells the story of the Council of Jerusalem in his novelization of the life of Paul…
Three groups were gathered in the room. On one side were Paul and Barnabus, preachers and missionaries sold out to the idea that the life of following Jesus was wonderfully rich and diverse. On the other side were the preachers of the law. Jewish Christians, like Paul, they believed that in order to follow Jesus, one must first submit to the laws of the Jewish faith. Dietary restrictions. Festivals and feasts. Circumcision. Prerequisites to following Jesus. And in the middle were the pillars – the Apostles. Peter. James. John. Those who had walked with Jesus and had final say between the two theologies in the room.
First, the law missionaries presented their case, as Paul and Titus and Barnabus sat quietly. Theirs was a convincing case, especially to folks like Peter and James and John, who had grown up following that law and those prerequisites, it was an easy case to make. They nodded as the law missionaries spoke in reverent tones about the tenets of the faith that they had all shared. About the Torah. About circumcision – the sign of the covenant.
Then, the pillar apostles called on the great orator Paul to present his case. He began quietly, telling of his missionary work and those who he had converted. And then he invited Titus to stand. A young man at that point, Titus blushed when Paul began to extol his value to his missionary work. The pillars nodded as they hear about Titus’s work, a work that they already knew by reputation. And before long, Paul’s voice began to rise with emotion and strength. And his factual report became a moment of worship. And then this community born with the coming of the Holy Spirit began to sing and dance and speak in tongues, including young Titus. And a factual report became a moment of worship became an ecstatic movement of the Spirit, as Paul and Titus and the pillars all join in. All laugh and dance and cheer on Titus, rejoicing that the Holy Spirit is at work in this man and the mission in which he is engaged. Paul’s point is made. Theirs is a work of God!
And then before anyone else knew what was happening, Paul stopped in the middle of an ecstatic dance and looked the pillars directly in the eye. And in a clear yet firm voice proclaimed, “and yet, the Spirit-filled Titus that you see in front of you has not been, nor will ever be, circumcised!” And, in Wangerin’s retelling, the preachers of the law tear their cloaks and tear chunks of hair from their beard in agony and grief. They cry out at this heresy and apostasy. They simply have no way to understand how this or any man of God could live a life free of their prerequisites. It simply couldn’t be.
Titus didn’t fit the mold of what a Christian was supposed to be. Born a Greek and raised outside of Jewish culture, he was a part of the church in Antioch, one of the first churches started by the Apostle Paul. In fact, it is in Antioch where Jesus-followers are first called “Christians.” It appears that he was personally converted by Paul, and quickly he became an important partner in his mission. He travelled with Paul from city to city, using his comfort with and native awareness of Greek culture to speak to those whom he met. We don’t get much of a biography of Titus in Scripture. In fact, we really only learn about Titus in the context of something else. But the pieces of his story that we get are important. In Corinthians, he is trusted and persuasive. In the book titled after him, fashioned as a letter to him instead of from his own voice, he appears to be a wise and revered leader. But before all of that, we read about this important snippet of his life from the book of Galatians.
At the Jerusalem Council, the story from the beginning of the sermon, it is the appearance of Titus that helps the pillars to accept Paul’s missionary work and not insist on converts becoming Jewish first. The Jerusalem Council was a critical moment in the life of the church, and it helped to open the door to a new way of seeing the faith. However, there were those who tried to slam that door shut every chance they got. The passage that I read from Galatians about Titus is part of a blunt and unambiguous letter from Paul to the church at Galatia. It seems that those law-first preachers from the Jerusalem Council have become law missionaries, and are now coming behind Paul and preaching their message that Jesus is not enough. The law must be followed.
And Paul is mad. Really mad. He has already fought this battle, and it is decided as far as he is concerned. But now, these “agitators,” as he calls them, are stirring up trouble by preaching a faulty theology.
It might be helpful to remember why Paul rejects their theology. Richard B. Hayes summarizes the danger in Paul’s mind of these law missionaries. One, they preach a different Christology. In other words, the sufficiency of God’s grace shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not enough. Jesus is only the beginning, not the complete answer. Paul disagrees. Two, they preach a different pnuematology, a different theology of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the dynamism of the Spirit’s working in their lives takes a back seat to the static nature of the law requirements. Paul disagrees. Three, they preach a different ecclesiology, or vision of the church. After all, they have created a hierarchy among Christians according to who is in and out, who follows the law and who fails to follow the law. Paul disagrees. And finally, four, they preach a different eschatology, or reading of the times. For if the law and these prerequisites to faith must be followed, then nothing really changed when Christ came to earth. Paul is convinced that because of Christ, the world has been transformed! Again, Paul disagrees. According to Paul, these law-missionaries are preaching a faulty view of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, of the Church, and of the very nature of the world itself.
At first glimpse, one might think that the gospel that Paul preaches might have room for these law-first Jewish Christians. After all, if Jesus comes to us each where we are, then he would come to them in their obedience to the law. Like his famous metaphor of the body, are they not simply one part of the body that we should come to accept? But the problem for Paul with this theology is not just that some adopt it, but that they preach it. These preachers have come along behind Paul and are actively trying to undermine his message. They are not just law-followers, but law-missionaries. They are trying to convert the church of Galatia from the gospel that Paul had preached to a new gospel. And so, they have gone from simply being a part of the body, to insisting that everyone be the same part. They are like a tooth that demands that everyone become teeth. And their message sounds perfectly logical to many of the Galatians, as they show up, all smiles. But Paul instead sees them as sharp fangs, ready to devour the truth of his message. And so, the book of Galatians is a treatise on the failure of their theology. And Titus is the symbol of what God is doing in spite of their foolishness.
Today Titus concludes our series, “Better Know a Believer” with Titus. We have been together digging through the Scriptures, turning over the rocks, looking for the stories of the believers who have not been the most obvious or attention-getting. Perhaps you have noticed that the voices that we have listened to have been the ones that are often silenced. Women. Foreigners. Religious outcasts. Theirs are the voices that we don’t often hear. Or listen for. And, hopefully you have heard the thread laced throughout these stories, that the God of our Scriptures had used the outsider again and again to make a difference…to become an example of character and courage…to tell the story of grace.
And so if our Scriptures tell the story of God’s work through the voices often silenced, then it is up to us to ask who are those voices today? Whose voices are silenced? Who is ignored or hushed? Who is the outsider? In our communities. In our world. Even in our own mirrors. For how often do we become painfully aware that we, too, are not the target of too many spotlights? We, too, often feel like the outsider. The outcast. The one whose voice is silenced. Our final believer Titus is an important reminder that when we come up with our own prerequisites, our own reasons to hush or ignore the outsider, God will often use the very person who we have silenced. “Remember the message of Titus!” Paul demands. “The uncircumcised, Greek, follower of Christ and not law-prerequisites is an example for all of you as to what the freedom of Christ allows. His is a message of grace and freedom!”
And so the message of Jesus to Saul on the road to Damascus becomes the message of Jesus to Galatia and the totality of the Early Church becomes the message of Jesus to you and me. Remember the message of Titus! Don’t add prerequisites to God’s story of grace! When you do, I guarantee that people will not listen to anything else you have to say! It was true in Paul’s day, and it is true today. Because when you say “hate the sin and love the sinner,” whatever sin you are talking about, you have to understand that the Tituses of our world only hear the first word. They do not hear anything after the word “hate.” Generations are leaving the church because all they hear is the word “hate.” And so, whatever your notion of sin becomes your prerequisite to others to come Christ, and you have become a law-missionary and “agitator” to the Gospel all over again! Foolish Galatians! May it not be so!
But that’s not where I want to end my sermon today. I spend plenty of my time talking to the law-missionaries, including the one that I see in myself.
As I end my sermon today, I want to talk to the Tituses. To those who feel that their voices have been silenced or ignored. To those who feel like the outsider or the foreigner. Because I believe that there are those listening to my voice today who feel that the church has rejected them, judged them, forced them to meet some level of cultural standard which is frankly, foreign to the Gospel.
And so, to the Tituses looking in the mirror today and wondering if God really hears them, I want to say something. On behalf of all of the law-missionaries who have tried to have you circumcised in one way or another, I am sorry. I am sorry that you have been told that you have to change in order to be lovable. I am sorry that you have been told that grace is not an option until you have jumped through the hoops. I am sorry, and I want you to know that you are loved. Whoever you are, you are loved. There is no prerequisite to God’s love!
Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I am white. I am male. I am straight. I have a beautiful family, a phenomenal job. I am as (quote-unquote) normal as our culture says that you can be. But the reality of the Gospel tells me that I represent but one way to be loved by our God. Regardless of who you are, you are loved. Regardless of what you have done, you are loved. Regardless of what we in the church have said to you, you are loved.
And I want that message to be loud and clear. I leave in six days for a few weeks of training about how I am supposed to do this whole “telling of the good news” thing. And I want the very last thing you hear from me to be this: whomever you are, you are loved. Remember the message of Titus, and live as one loved by our Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer.